A Predictable Unpredictability. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic and the concept of "strategic uncertainty" within global public health

Theresa MacPhail


This essay will examine the seemingly new paradigm shift within global public health from the use of a scientific "certainty" to a biological and situational "uncertainty" as one of the foundations of response to infectious disease outbreaks. During the recent 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, national and international public health officials often referred directly to the "uncertainty" surrounding both the virus itself and of the course, duration and severity of the pandemic. The vague and flexible concept of "uncertainty" – especially as it was employed by top virologists and epidemiologists in relationship to questions about the predictability of the influenza virus – provided the scientific foundation for much of the rationale behind both national and international health responses to the global pandemic. Public health officials, epidemiologists, and scientists often deployed a type of "strategic uncertainty" as an effective tool for gaining or retaining trust and scientific authority during the H1N1 pandemic.


ambiguity; global public health; influenza; medical anthropology; strategic uncertainty



DOI: https://doi.org/10.6094/behemoth.2010.3.3.684